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Lynn Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel,” first performed in 2003, is now a regional-theater staple, partly because it calls for a modest set and a smallish cast of six but mostly because it’s one of the very best American plays of the past quarter-century. The tale of Esther (Nehassaiu deGannes), an illiterate turn-of-the-century black seamstress who suffers grievously when she falls in love with the wrong man, it unfolds in Daniela Varon’s Shakespeare & Company revival with an unadorned simplicity that reminded me of a silent movie when I saw “Intimate Apparel” off Broadway 13 years ago. I don’t mean to suggest that the dialogue is in any way lacking, for it is, as always with Ms. Nottage, plain-spoken and pungent (“He was too proper to like anything colored”). But the play’s dramatic gestures are so forthright that you scarcely need to attend closely to what the characters are saying in order to respond to the emotional import of their tragic situation….
Casting is crucial in a show like this, and Ms. deGannes, whose part was played in 2004 by Viola Davis, is fully as good as her celebrated predecessor. Ms. deGannes brought off the singular feat of making a fiercely positive impression as Cordelia in Chicago Shakespeare’s 2014 “King Lear,” and her performance this time around is identically distinguished. At first she comes across as mousy, but by play’s end you realize that her seeming shyness is a façade that only just conceals a boiling reservoir of ambition—and anger….
Alan Ayckbourn’s plays, many of which combine frenzied farce with deep-dyed melancholy, are popular in England but much less well known over here. Could the problem be that audiences in this country prefer that funny plays be funny and serious plays serious? Whatever the reason, an Ayckbourn revival is always worth traveling to see, and Barrington Stage Company’s production of “Taking Steps,” which had a brief Broadway run in 1991 but doesn’t seem to have received any major American stagings since then, is a joyous romp from curtain to curtain.
“Taking Steps,” like “Bedroom Farce” and “The Norman Conquests” before it, is one of Mr. Ayckbourn’s scenically conceptual plays. The initiating premise is that the action takes place in a rundown three-story country house that is allegedly haunted and was once a Victorian brothel—except that there aren’t any stairs. Instead, the three floors are all on the same level, and the actors mime clambering up and down the steps that connect them….
“Taking Steps” was written to be performed in the round, and any attempt to mount it on a proscenium stage, as Barrington Stage is doing, must account for this inescapable fact. Enter Sam Buntrock, the director, whose solution to the problem, arrived at in collaboration with Jason Sherwood and David Weiner, respectively the set and lighting designers, is to interlock the three playing areas instead of placing them side by side on the stage, using lighting cues to signal where the characters are at any given moment, the same way it’s done in the round. You’ll have no trouble keeping up with their demented doings, and Mr. Buntrock is splendidly adept at the hair-trigger timing necessary to keep a farce in motion….
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To read my review of Intimate Apparel, go here.
To read my review of Taking Steps, go here.